Michael Barone suggests that conservatives will probably never be able to re-run plays from the Ronald Reagan playbook, because the increasing "progressivism" of the tax system - a smaller group of wealthier people paying all the obvious taxes, while nearly half the population takes a "free ride" - makes it just about impossible to propose growth-oriented tax cuts without getting clubbed to the ground by leftists mobs howling about "tax cuts for the rich." When only the rich pay taxes, all tax cuts can be caricatured as giveaways to the rich. It's the classic socialist doomsday formula, designed to produce an invincible voting bloc that cares only about what it can get from government, and very little for what it costs.
Rest assured, this philosophy is poisonous, and it will kill us in the not-too-distant future, when it becomes impossible to pretend the growing burden of government can be shouldered almost entirely by a few faceless fat cats. It really should be tougher to maintain that pretense already. It endures because the "free rider" notion isn't really true - a huge amount of our government burden has been hidden from us. Even people who believe themselves to be free riders, because Tax Day is the day they line up to receive the "gift" of a refund paid with their own interest-free money, are surrendering a lot more of their wealth to the State than they think. I'd love to try curing the socialist poison through reforms that would eliminate all the hidden and pass-through taxes, do away with the entirely too painless system of payroll withholding, boil things down to a simple flat tax or national sales tax, and see how many people still think they don't have "skin in the game."
But Barone has another idea, which is both logically sound and culturally explosive: he approvingly cites Senator Mike Lee's (R-UT) proposal for expanded tax credits, along with various other measures designed to encourage intact marriages and family cohesion, as the first step in a process of simultaneously scaling back government and encouraging the development of nuclear families, which are the indispensable nuclear power plant for general prosperity.
As Utah Senator Mike Lee noted in speeches at the Heritage Foundation, “the problem of poverty is linked to family breakdown and the erosion of marriage among low-income families and communities.”
Lee is careful not to cast opprobrium on single or divorced parents. But he insists on pointing to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that economic outcomes for their children have been far worse than those for children raised in two-parent families.
That produces many personal tragedies. And in cold economic terms, it means that society is losing gross domestic product because of less than optimal development of human capital.
Government policy can’t force people to get or stay married. But it may be able to encourage them to do so.
Barone notes that evidence from European implementation of such social policies supports the notion that well-crafted laws can encourage family formation. I would add that the incredible success of the Great Society at destroying families conclusively proves they can be shaped by government programs. The decay of virtually every social indicator among the "beneficiaries" of the modern welfare state is astounding. Coupled with the immense cultural pressures deployed against marital fidelity and those much-derided "family values," the American family has been losing a war.
It might be able to win, with the proper reinforcements, but the sort of program Lee, Barone, and others have in mind will be very difficult to get past our cultural gatekeepers. They're not going to retreat from the social ground they have "won." You're not supposed to do anything that suggests a man and woman in stable marriage are the best environment for child-rearing, especially compared to the maternal embrace of the all-knowing State. Merely arresting the decay of parental control over their children's upbringing will be a tough fight.
The new cultural consensus that holds sexual abandon, at increasingly young ages, as the essence of "empowerment" is totally incompatible with the restraint and self-discipline necessary to be good mothers and fathers. There's no way to encourage, or officially sanction, respect for those "old-fashioned" values without delivering a stunning rebuke to the crew that can't wait to throw morning-after birth control pills across the counter at tween girls without parental consent, or even identification. The Left will open fire with its heaviest artillery at the first sign of Ozzie and Harriet's eyes.
And what's all this talk about developing "human capital" by strengthening the family? Don't you know that's the government's job, carried out by the most powerful special interest in America, the teachers' unions? They're doing such a smashing job that it has become urgently necessary to import highly-skilled workers from other countries, because the fabulously expensive American university system can't produce enough of them. And we also need to import low-skilled workers to handle all the jobs American young people don't feel like doing. A nation with a tragic, seemingly permanent shortage of demand for labor is importing labor - but none dare connect this with the failure of the entrenched liberals who control our culture and educational system.
Strong families mean greater independence, which is not something the acolytes of Big Government relish. That's why they've invested so much cultural energy in caricaturing families as suffocating, out-of-touch dungeons for personal freedom and ambition, while in the ultimate sucker play, the State is substituted as the engine of carefree liberation. You can't really be free to pursue your dreams unless government programs support you, and protect you from risk, in every aspect of your life! Just ask "Julia," the fictional character in Barack Obama's 2012 election propaganda, an imaginary woman who owes literally every aspect of her comfort, security, and success to a program Obama wanted to make bigger, and cruel Mitt Snidely Whiplash Romney wanted to cut back. Julia even picked up a designer baby out of nowhere, with the State as his surrogate father, and not a thought spared for the real deal.
The Left wins great influence among young people by tricking them into confusing sexual license with liberty. Frisky kids will give away any amount of the latter to secure the former, right? A greater emphasis on marriage and family would ruin that little game. Those who convinced us to accept horrific levels of divorce, illegitimacy, and dependence are nowhere near finished playing.
Families are more than the building blocks of prosperity and independence, as if that weren't enough reason to strengthen them. The family is the basic unit of civilization itself. It might be said that the Western concept of a lawful nation - particularly the American ideals of limited government, inalienable rights, and equality under the law - is only applicable to a populace composed largely of intact families. There's plenty of room for unattached individuals, but some great mass of strong families must lie at the heart of a free nation, because law is a form of energy that flow between families. A great deal of civic order comes from internal relationships: concern for family honor, the expectations and hopes parents hold for their children, a sense of duty toward our elders. Law enforced by the State fills in the gaps, building the greater architecture of civilization... but as you can see from the crime, poverty, and disorder that invariably plague areas where the bonds of family are week, law is not adequate as a substitute for the unwritten rules of conduct between relations. The State cannot impose what the members of loving and loyal families generate. Among other things, the math doesn't work. There will never be enough government enforcers and social workers to replace fathers and mothers.
The holiday season offers one of the best opportunities to reflect upon the importance of family. We approach the end of a long, agonizing, expensive experiment that has demonstrated government power is no substitute for the bonds that exist between husband and wife, father and family, mother and children. Civilization should be happy to give thanks for the family, without which it cannot exist. Independence and prosperity are supposed to be birthrights, not scarce resources rationed by a bureaucracy.